Is there any greater culinary sin than taking a great piece of meat and making it inedible?
For this week’s episode of “Top Chef” Kentucky the contestants see how far they can stretch the concept before tipping the cow over.
The episode opens with a fun Quickfire: Guest Lena Waithe, Emmy-winning writer and actress on “Master of None,” is there to help judge the best reimagining of the hot Brown, the classic open-faced turkey sandwich with Mornay, cheese and bacon.
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Two chefs, Justin and Sara, have versions of this in the repertoire and seem excited to take on a familiar dish. Justin decides to make a breakfast-style version with a maple Mornay. Sara, from Paducah, goes with a Scotch egg version featuring turkey sausage around a hard boiled egg.
Unfortunately, Sara turkey sausage is underdone and she doesn’t plate two dishes in time; she’s out of the immunity challenge.
“It’s shameful and embarrassing,” Sara says. Especially because she was SO CLOSE!
Several other chefs turn out great versions, including Eddie and Adrienne, but Justin’s “Kentucky Fried Breakfast Brown” with smoked Gouda, maple Mornay and fried turkey breast over grilled bread is the one Lena says she could eat all the time.
It’s Justin’s first Quickfire win, and a big break because the Elimination Challenge is a tough one.
Guest judge Nancy Silverton, owner/chef of Mozza Restaurant Group, helps to introduce it: Chefs have to cook with local produce and beef. (Kentucky is the biggest beef state east of the Mississippi, FYI.)
The chefs draw knives for their cut of beef and it’s clear from the beginning that a few are really stumped. (I mean, the cow’s head???)
Dario gives them their cuts and the chefs go to work to prepare dishes at Decca, the Louisville restaurant owned by chef Annie Pettry, who was an alum of “Top Chef” season 14.
It’s poor Eric, last week’s big winner, who is stuck with the cow’s head. He decides to make a tongue mousse.
The shocker, though, is that two chefs decide to make tartares. That’s right, dueling dishes of raw beef.
Suddenly this dinner isn’t seeming so fun, right? I’m a vegetarian, so admittedly an all-beef challenge was never for me. But I’m guessing that when lucky “Top Chef” fans got to Decca for this one they expected a little more meat to be on this bone.
Turns out none of it is, and if host Padma Lakshmi’s face is anything to go by, that’s a big disappointment. If somebody had served a grilled T-bone, the judges would have applauded.
Brandon’s tartare is made from the loin cut, and it’s Asian-style with miso egg sauce, black raspberries, crispy potatoes and asparagus, he says. And something else.
Head judge Tom Colicchio frowns. (It’s never a good thing when Tom frowns.)
David’s tartare is from the round cut, cold-smoked with allium confit, Kentucky cave-aged cheddar and Dijonnaise.
Nobody at the table seems a big fan of either one.
Justin, who has immunity, brings out a flank steak with creamy polenta, braised mustard greens and carrot puree that is OK.
But Adrienne’s “black & blue” NY strip with collard greens and pickled green garlic salad really delivers.
Back in the kitchen, Kentucky chef Sara is struggling; she’s got the plate cut (I had to look it up: It’s the tough and fatty section from below the ribs on the belly, often used for brisket or fajitas) and decides to make sausage (what is it with her and sausage?) and it didn’t come out well. She decides to sear it to give it some firmness, then serve it over young turnips, with a mulberry and garlic scape vinaigrette.
Padma says she’s underwhelmed. But Dario tactfully points out that the plate is the most difficult cut and sausage would have been a good idea. If it had only worked out better.
Brian (who loves butchering) had the rib cut and brings out teeny portions of underdone ribeye with charred spring vegetables and raspberry-infused bordelaise.
By now the judges are noticing that the one thing they aren’t seeing is hunks of meat. And they WANT MEAT.
Maggie Keith, owner of Foxhollow Farm, which donated the cow they are eating, says she wishes somebody would just bring out a big juicy piece on the bone, so they could really taste the flavor of her amazing beef.
Ain’t going to happen.
Michelle’s chuck is braised with ginger berry sauce, white corn grits with cheese and charred fennel. And it’s dry.
Eddie, who had the brisket, goes back to his Polish roots with a modern take on the “golumpki,” brisket-stuffed romaine with ragu, beet and berry sauce. It’s a surprisingly tasty dish.
Kelsey’s braised shank with carrot and saffron grits is just a saffron bomb, and Eric’s beef tongue mousse on lentils and seasonal vegetables might as well be invisible.
“I’ve never heard of liquified tongue,” judge Graham Elliot notes. And there’s probably a good reason for that.
Dario, who came all the way from Italy for this, is sad. He says in Italian that he hoped the chefs “would have more courage” and their dishes would be “less frou frou.” Back at the judges’ table, I bet a lot of the chefs are thinking the same thing.
As Sara puts it behind the scenes, “I hate that (Dario) nicely butchered it and then we chopped the s*@# out of it.”
Justin, Adrienne and Eddie have the top three dishes, with Eddie’s judged the one that “paid best homage to the beef,” says Nancy.
And she has a big surprise for him: He gets an apron autographed by Dario and an invitation to spend a week cutting up stuff with him at his butcher shop in Tuscany.
In the bottom three? Brian, Brandon and Sara. They’ve all been here before and know it isn’t any fun.
Tom asks Brian why he cut his ribeye off the bone? “I was afraid to serve you guys a big piece of beef.”
Cut to aghast faces on Padma, Tom, Graham ... me.
“Cooking scared with get you there (in the bottom) every single time! I’m going to give everybody a little piece of advice here: Be yourself,” Tom says. “That’s when you cook the best.”
Sara seems to have a similar problem: She’s not a fine-dining chef but she feels like she has to try to be that for the judges, Tom says.
Padma tells Sara she’s “super disappointed” in her sausage “especially since it came from you.”
An emotional Sara (whose husband actually raises beef cattle) says she was really striving but admits she probably should have just gone with meatloaf.
“Sorry, y’all,” Sara says, wiping away a tear. She seems resigned to getting the chop.
But it’s Brandon who draws the harshest criticism when he admits to thickening his tartare with xanthan gum to emulsify it.
Cut to appalled faces.
As Tom puts it, it’s hard to get past slimy beef; he’s sent to pack his knives.
But Brandon will get another chance on “Last Chance Kitchen” and we will see if he can finally check his hubris at the set door.
Next week “Top Chef” Kentucky heads to Lake Cumberland, where the chefs cook on a houseboat ... that loses power, apparently. And chef Adrienne gets sick. Will illness keep her from capitalizing on her recent strong showing? Stay tuned.